‘The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their World’ – Dashka Slater

One teenager in a skirt.
One teenager with a lighter.
One moment that changes both of their lives forever.

If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight.

A seemingly innocuous action, done with little thought of the potential consequences, and I’m fairly certain that many teenagers could identify – to some degree – with this scenario. What will be quite different is that for most of us who carry out a ‘dumb/risky’ action there will be no further impact. Richard was not quite so lucky.

From the outset we are told exactly what happened to the two students involved – Richard and Sasha. Sasha fell asleep on a bus travelling home from school, Richard put a lighter to their skirt and then watched as they were seriously burned. The consequences for both could have been so much more severe, but what we are privy to here is enough.

We begin by focusing on Sasha. Born as Luke this section outlines how they came to view themselves as agender and what that meant for them and their family. There’s a lot of info packed into this section, but it gives a clear insight into some of the issues facing teens exploring their identity.

Next we’re introduced to Richard, a cheeky young boy who wants to achieve. Circumstances seem to play a huge part in his life and the options open to him, but each person has to take responsibility for their actions and live with the consequences of their actions.

As we watch the bus journey unfold, the moment Richard sets Sasha’s skirt on fire is fleeting. However, the repercussions of this moment are enormous.
The story takes us through court appearances, how both families reacted and some of the wider issues involved. It poses a number of questions about hate crime, how teens are treated in the justice system and how we can accommodate difference.

I felt quite humbled reading this, and very fortunate to not be faced with so many of the issues touched on within the pages. While the writing style had an inevitable journalistic tone, the story was engaging and one that needs to be shared. Thank you to NetGalley for granting me access to this book.

‘As I Descended’ – Robin Talley

“Something wicked this way comes.”

Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple—even if no one knows it but them.
Only one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey.
Golden child Delilah is a legend at the exclusive Acheron Academy, and the presumptive winner of the distinguished Cawdor Kingsley Prize. She runs the school, and if she chose, she could blow up Maria and Lily’s whole world with a pointed look, or a carefully placed word.
But what Delilah doesn’t know is that Lily and Maria are willing to do anything—absolutely anything—to make their dreams come true. And the first step is unseating Delilah for the Kingsley Prize. The full scholarship, awarded to Maria, will lock in her attendance at Stanford―and four more years in a shared dorm room with Lily.
Maria and Lily will stop at nothing to ensure their victory—including harnessing the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school.
But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what is imagined, the girls must decide where they draw the line.

‘Macbeth’ for so many contemporary readers is linked to painful study for English GCSE with heads hurting from trying to work out what is in front of you. Here, Talley takes the essence of the story but gives it a contemporary twist.

Lily and Maria are students/roommates/lovers and our story begins with a ouija board experiment that immediately sets the scene for some dark and unsettling events.

Plotting to bring about the downfall of the main competitor for a scholarship prize, the two girls begin their murderous journey full of hope and quickly descend into ‘madness’ caused by their guilt.

This blended the Macbeth story and modern concerns well. Some characters, naturally, were more appealing than others but it revealed the characters and also encouraged some thoughts about the concerns raised in the contemporary setting.

‘The Last to Let Go’ – Amber Smith

 

The Way I Used To Be was a book recommended to me that I read in equal parts horror and amazement. The Last To Let Go takes a similarly tough topic – though less talked about – and is equally challenging to read.

The explosive first chapter introduces us to our main character, Brooke, returning home to find police swarming her neighbourhood. Her mother has stabbed her father, with her little sister the only witness.

Suddenly everything Brooke thought she knew has been turned upside down. Nobody wants to acknowledge the hidden abusive side to her father, and the impact his behaviour had on the rest of the family. Her mother is in prison, and the three children are all struggling to live with what has happened.

What I found intriguing about this was Smith’s focus on Brooke and her life after this event. We see her coming to terms with her sexuality, developing her relationship with her siblings and taking tentative steps to develop her sense of identity.

‘Boy Meets Hamster’ – Birdie Milano

A quirky story, that will have you laughing out loud and (probably) falling in love with a giant orange hamster.

Dylan is used to being dragged on rubbish holidays with his parents and younger brother. This summer he’s taken to a caravan park in Cornwall, and the only consolation is he can take his best friend Kayla. Nothing much happens at this park, but in his quest to have the holiday of a lifetime Dylan ends up causing chaos.

Upon arriving at their holiday home, Dylan develops an enormous crush on the boy in the van next-door. Unfortunately, this crush causes him untold pain…not helped by the fact that everywhere he goes he’s accosted by the park mascot, hamster Nibbles.

Of course, things don’t quite go to plan. There’s enough awful things happen to Dylan to leave him traumatised for life, but he bounces back from them all. He even ends up finding the boy of his dreams-though not where he was expecting!

Thanks to publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this in advance of publication.

‘They Both Die at the End’ – Adam Silvera

In this world we have Death-Cast. On the day you are going to die you receive a call letting you know. No details are shared, but this call gives you the chance to spend your last day as you see fit.

On September 5th, a little after midnight, both Rufus and Mateo, our protagonists, receive the call. Very different characters, but through the Last Friends app they end up meeting. Their last day together is a poignant set of experiences as each confronts things that scare them/takes steps to make their last day one to be remembered.

Starting the novel knowing that we will lose our main characters at the end gave everything a rather melancholic feel. Yet the things they spend their time doing – and the bond they forge – was pretty inspiring. As Rufus says towards the end ‘Maybe it’s better to have gotten it right and been happy for one day instead of living a lifetime of wrongs’.

Silvera gets it so right here…

‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ – John Boyne

My experience of John Boyne has been limited to his novels for younger readers and a ghost story. I wasn’t sure what I’d make of this, but I have to say thank you NetGalley for providing me with an ARc of a bittersweet, bleakly comic book that had moments of hope and despair intermingled seamlessly.

The book opens with sixteen year old Catherine Groggin being labelled a whore by her parish priest and cast out of her village because she is pregnant. Nobody steps forward to support her, and nobody helps her. This could have been a thoroughly depressing tale, but Boyne brings a bleak comedy to events by telling the story through the eyes of Cyril Avery (the boy Catherine was carrying).

We learn from Cyril that he was adopted by Charles and Maude, a wealthy couple desperate for a child. A successful banker and renowned novelist, in their home Cyril has a rather unconventional childhood.

Following Cyril as a child we see him go to school, develop an intense crush on a childhood friend and watch as he grows up gay in Ireland.

There was so much to despair over in this book: thypocrisy of the church; the bigoted attitudes of many of the characters; the needless violence and the overwhelming injustice at people not being able to live as themselves out of fear for what others might say or do. Yet, throughout, there were beautifully tender moments of hope for the characters. The dark humour showed by Cyril won me over totally.

Boyne has set himself an adventurous task here. He is exploring attitudes to homosexuality over a substantial period of time, and there’s a lot of characters interweaved throughout. At times I felt frustrated by the close proximity of the key characters to each other without them being aware of the significance, but there was a heartwarming sense of circularity to the novel that felt fitting.

‘Boy2Girl’ – Terence Blacker

Firstly, this was not the book I expected. It wasn’t bad, but nor was it quite the exploration of gender/identity that I was expecting. This clash between what you might think you’re getting and what’s there could lead to a lot of disappointed readers.

Matt has a fairly safe life. Nothing much happens, then things are shaken up when his mum is given custody of her nephew, Sam, after the death of his mother. Sam is prickly, tough, but clearly deeply upset by the absence of his father. Naturally, perhaps, this is covered up with a kind of machismo, which just irritates Matt and his friends. So they decide to set Sam a challenge – one that will have serious consequences. Sam has to spend his first week at school as a girl.
Can’t see many 12 year old boys doing this, but Sam does. Of course it creates confusion, some humorous situations and a fair amount of chaos.

While there were attempts to explore issues around identity, it was itself upholding some of the sexist views it pertained to challenge. It also took some time to adjust to the different voices within the novel.

All in all this was reasonably funny, but it isn’t a guaranteed laugh out lead read (whatever it says on the cover).

Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

‘Cruel Summer’ – James Dawson

This is a difficult review to write, as I enjoyed this book but it was all just too knowing for me (without some of the elements you get when it’s done really well).

The book opens with a chapter called ‘Fade In’…telling us about the moment Janey died. It’s strongly hinted that she was murdered. The book ends with a chapter called ‘Fade Out’ where we leave our characters with all manner of secrets revealed, and most of our questions answered. In-between this frame we are given a series of scenes telling us the story.

Katie and her group have friends have never really got over the apparent suicide of their friend Janey a year ago. They decide to go away on holiday to Katie’s villa…and, of course, they have questions about that night. Nobody wants to talk about it, but someone is about to force their hand.

So much for a relaxing break and a chance to catch up…another murder is on the cards!

We see events through the eyes of Ryan, our TV star in the making. He views everything as if it was his own personal TV show, which is a form of coping mechanism, but it means everything is elevated to a more significant status in an attempt to show its worthiness. It also means that there’s a rather irritating tendency to self-consciously deconstruct everything to tell us why it’s significant, or to force us into a certain train of thought. However, it does allow us to switch between the various characters in a way that works well.

There’s the standard cliches: jock, good girl, nerd…we think we know what to expect and Dawson plays up to this. We watch these supposedly ‘perfect teens’ implode as secrets are outed. Some of the secrets are given up more easily than others, and some offer more of a motive for murder than others.

Throughout, I felt like I was reading a paint-by-numbers screenplay for a teen scary movie. It was good fun, but didn’t move beyond what we’d expect. If you want to know who did it, you’ll have to read the book. You might well have sussed it very early on, but it’s good fun watching our various characters work things out.

‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue’ – Mackenzi Lee

Is this worth reading? To quote one of the main characters, “Abso-bloody-lutely!”

From its opening pages to the climax, this is a rip-roaring read that I loved for many reasons:
1. The evident love of her subject the author shows. Following our characters on their Grand Tour was an experience, with little nuggets of historical information salted away throughout.
2. Felicity. A wonderfully strong female character with a droll sense of humour, intelligence, compassion and utter fearlessness in the way she transgresses the expectations of society.
3. The humour that was evident throughout. From the acerbic wit of Monty to the scenes involving the most hapless pirates ever, I couldn’t help but laugh aloud at many points in the book.
4. The positive depiction of Monty and Percy’s relationship. Whether this would have actually been credible at the time simply doesn’t matter. It was a privilege to watch their relationship unfold, and I was rooting for them.
5. The fact that it hooked me at the start, but just got better and better as the story unfolded.
6. The unexpected tender moments. Scipio recognising a kindred spirit in Monty, and teaching him to stand up for himself brought a tear to my eye.

Let’s be honest, there will be many who will dislike this book for the very reasons I loved it. More’s the pity!

For sheer exuberance this novel will be hard to beat, and it shared something of the spirit of some of the 18th-century novels I studied for my degree. Coupled with its modern sensibilities I think it’s a potent combination.

‘The Regulars’ – Georgia Clark

What would you sacrifice to be pretty? Friends, your job…your life? That’s the decision that three twenty-somethings have to make in this novel.

I fell for the cover, totally. So, like most of the characters in this book I am superficial and rather focused on first impressions.

The premise behind this book was fascinating. Three friends in their early twenties, suffering the usual angst and body issues, are given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. An old friend passes on something called Pretty. Curiosity gets the better of them and they take it. After some Inbetweeners-style bathroom reaction to it, the girls learn it has changed them.

Glossy, beautiful and like Photoshopped versions of themselves, the three girls get to play. They see just how good life can be for the beautiful people…but their angst and issues remain, and life on the other side isn’t actually much greener.

This reminded me a little of Limitless, but focusing on three characters meant things were always rather superficial. The scenarios the girls get into were, possibly, meant to be humorous but I found them rather depressing. If only they’d had the chance to do something better.

Ultimately, the girls come to realise there’s positives to who they really are. We leave the book none the wiser about what the drug was, how it worked or whether others were on it. Do we need to know? Probably not, but the message that beauty is only skin deep and we should learn to love who we are is rather obvious.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this, but I feel it could have been so much better.